By Ahmed Ali
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recent performance is worrisome. The ISF are failing to contain sustained waves of car bombs and are dealing with morale and manpower issues. On the other hand, the ISF’s most active opponents are strengthening. These developments have caused the Iraqi government to enact measures to reenergize and support the ISF. The success of these measures is critical for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as the 2014 national elections approach.
Iraq’s current security environment poses a significant challenge to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). This has increasingly been the case since April 23 when ISF units raided a protest site in Hawija, Kirkuk. Evidence of a struggling ISF includes the fall of towns to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Jayesh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN), sustained waves of car bombs, defections of military units, the resignation of senior commanders and the phenomenon of commanders disobeying orders, the (re)formation of local security units known as Sahwas, renewed cooperation with erstwhile rivals (the Iraqi Kurdish security forces, or Peshmerga), and the recent successful AQI attack on the Abu Ghraib prison.
In his recent visit to Washington, Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, announced that the deteriorating security atmosphere has led Iraq to requesting further security assistance from the United States. According to Zebari, “we [Iraqi government] cannot fight these increasing terrorist” challenges without assistance. Accordingly, the Iraqi government is considering U.S. drone strikes and surveillance capability in addition to possibly requesting U.S. military advisers.
The current operational status of the ISF represents a major challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he seeks to reassert his standing and stature as a “law and order” commander-in-chief prior to the 2014 elections. Further deterioration in ISF’s capability will allow AQI and JRTN to reestablish control of terrain in the country. The control of terrain by these two groups will represent a further threat to Iraq’s stability and will create conditions for increasing violence.
ISF Units Disobedience and Command Discipline
Effective ISF performance has proven to be a challenge in the aftermath of the April 23 events in Hawija. Shortly after Hawija, gunmen reportedly affiliated with AQI and JRTN controlled the strategic town of Salman Beg in Salah ad-Din province. During the battle for Salman Beg, the predominantly Iraqi Kurdish 16th brigade of the 4th Iraqi Army division, which is stationed nearby, rejected orders to engage in the fight. Subsequently, its leader and over 600 of its members were referred to martial courts for “disobeying orders.” The ISF regained control of Salman Beg after a truce was brokered between the gunmen and local notables. The force deployed to provide security in the town was from the Maysan-based 10th division Iraqi Army. The 10th division force appears to have been replaced by a regiment from the 4th division. Nonetheless, the deployment of the 10th division in Salman Beg was a clear example of one of the ISF’s coping strategies: repositioning forces from other parts of the country to deal with a security threat. While the redeployment of forces from southern Iraq can provide a stopgap measure for ISF’s struggles elsewhere in the country, it will also likely allow AQI greater freedom to stage and carry out attacks in the south given the units absence from their original posts.
An additional indicator of the breakdown in the command structure includes senior officers offering their resignations or disobeying orders. Since 2007, Prime Minister Maliki’s security architecture has relied on the appointment of loyal and hand-picked officers at the helm of operation commands and division commands. One prominent officer who has seen his fortune rise is General Nasser Ahmed al-Ghanam. He is an Iraqi Sunni and is originally from Hit, Anbar. He has previously led the infamous 24th brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division, also known as the Muthana Brigade. The Muthana brigade operates in the Abu Ghraib area and is portrayed by the predominantly Iraqi Sunni residents of the area as heavy-handed especially when it was under Ghanam’s commandership. Ghanam was then transferred to command the 2nd Iraqi Army division in Mosul where his performance was also criticized by local authorities. After his time in Mosul, he was transferred to Baghdad and commandeered the 17th division which operates in insurgency-active areas of southern Baghdad to northern Babil. Ghanam’s rise and appointment to sensitive positions is primarily due to his close relations with Maliki. To illustrate his close relations to Maliki, Ghanam had a billboard size poster of him with Maliki displayed on base.
Thus, it was surprising when Ghanam announced his resignation on July 22 attributing his decision to “mistaken policies” by the military leadership and the “haphazard taking of unprofessional decisions.” A security source stated that Ghanam resigned due to the formation of a committee to investigate him for the defection of soldiers and officers from his division because of Ghanam’s heavy-handed leadership style. In the wake of Ghanam’s resignation, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the suspension of legal procedures against absentees and deserters from the 17th division. Unlike the 16th brigade, Ghanam’s division did not disband. However, reports indicate that Ghanam urged 500 members of the 17th division to defect and disobey orders from the new leadership of the 17th division. If future defections from the 17th division occur, they will indicate a wider problem within the ISF personnel allegiances.
The resignation is indicative of serious problem for Maliki and the ISF. Ghanam’s resignation is an indicator of commanders’ dissatisfaction with the senior military leadership. It is plausible that Ghanam’s resignation was triggered by the investigation against him, but he has been one of Maliki’s most loyal officers and his resignation deals Maliki’s security doctrine a blow. The resignation also brings to the fore the endemic issue within ISF of deserting soldiers or absent soldiers. Some of those are known as “ghost soldiers” or “space soldiers” who, while members of the ISF, show up only to receive salaries and then bribe their commanders who in turn will allow them to return home. The “ghost soldiers” phenomenon is reportedly widespread within the ISF and according to some estimates they may be 10 % of the ISF or about 100,000 personnel.
Leadership discipline issues within ISF were on display again when reports emerged on July 31 that the MoD had fired the leader of the Anbar Operations Command (AOC), General Marthi al-Dulaimi, and replaced him with General Ibrahim al-Saadi. The reason for Dulaimi’s firing was reportedly due to his refusal to carry out arrest orders of protest leaders in Anbar. Al-Dulaimi was appointed as AOC commander precisely due to holding a prior position in Anbar and in order to appease protesters after the death of Fallujah protesters in clashes with the ISF.
General Dulaimi’s refusal to carry out orders is manifestation of commanders’ willingness to disobey orders despite knowing that doing so will result in firings and possible punishment. This has not happened in the ISF since 2007-2008 when units in Basra defected and rebelled during the Charge of the Knights campaign.
Awakening Councils 2.0
The formation of tribal and local groups to provide security known as Awakening Councils or Sahwas in Arabic was a one of the main pillars of the 2006-2007 U.S. “Surge” strategy. The Sahwas were formed and deployed in predominately Iraqi Sunni provinces like Anbar, Ninewa, and Salah ad-Din. These provinces represented hotbeds of violence during the insurgency’s peak and at the height of Iraq’s civil war. Additional Sahwas were formed in ethnically mixed provinces like Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salah ad-Din. AQI was very active in those areas. In southern Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formed Tribal Support Councils (TSCs) after the conclusion of the Charge of the Knights Operation that targeted Iraqi Shi‘a militias, and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in particular. The TSCs were intended to provide intelligence support to the Iraqi military. Regardless, the formation of the Sahwas was an indicator of the need for local manpower to counter an existing security threat.
As the ISF gained operational confidence, capability, and manpower; they became less reliant on the Sahwas. Other reasons that allowed the Iraqi government to be less reliant on the Sahwas include the centralization of the security architecture in the Maliki-directed Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC), the establishment of 11 Operation Commands that proliferated throughout the country, and the containment of AQI’s capability. Recently, however, the Sahwas have begun reconstituting themselves due to ISF’s apparent incapability to contain the deteriorating security situation.
On July 1, the head of the new Sahwa Council and Anbar tribal leader, Wisam al-Hardan, announced the formation of the Desert Hawks Sahwa that will have the responsibility for protecting the desert between the areas of al-Nukhaib in Anbar and Ain al-Tamor in Karbala. The Desert Hawks will additionally be tasked with protecting the Anbar highway that leads to Syria. According to Hardan, the Desert Hawks will cooperate with Anbar police, have 600 members, and be well-equipped and “will deploy in the whole western desert between Karbala and Anbar to pursue and raid terrorists’ hideouts that exist in the heart of that desert.” Hardan is currently Maliki’s tribal ally in Anbar and receives support from the Iraqi government. On August 6, Hardan announced that Desert Hawks are now operational and deployed in al-Karma, the areas of Albu Namir, and Al-Qaem. All of these areas are in Anbar, indicating that for the moment Desert Hawks are primarily Anbar-focused. Another Anbar tribal leader, Hamid al-Hayes, stated in March of this year that after meetings with Prime Minister Maliki he had gathered 3,500 individuals who will assist the Iraqi government with intelligence-gathering. These two entities are likely linked given the close relations between Hardan and Hayes.
Given the continued violence in Anbar, it is unlikely that these forces have had an impact on the ground yet. Furthermore, it is unclear how much traction these new Sahwas will receive due to Hardan and Hayes relations with Prime Minister Maliki.
In addition to these tribal Sahwas, steps have been taken to form Sahwas along ethno-sectarian lines. After multiple attacks likely carried out by AQI and targeting the Iraqi Turkmens in Tuz Khurmatu, Salah ad-Din; the residents of the district demanded the formation of an Iraqi Turkmen force that will provide security in the area. On June 27, a government committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani visited Tuz and announced that a Sahwa force consisted of 500-700 Iraqi Turkmens will be formed. Iraqi Kurds in the area objected to this arrangement, including the administrator of Tuz, Shalal Abdul, who described it as “evidence of the failure of governmental forces from army and police in providing security for the citizen.” The Iraqi Kurds consider Tuz a critical area since it falls in the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) area, and it is therefore logical for them to oppose the formation of a non-Iraqi Kurdish security force in the area. In the end, it appears that local objections prevented the formation of this unit, but once more the reliance on local residents for security is a troubling indicator.
In Diyala, an additional Sahwa formation is being considered. On July 30, an unnamed Sahwa official announced that a 500-person force will be formed in areas with a high concentration of Iraqi Shi‘a. Its task will include protecting neighborhoods and mosques and providing the military with intelligence. The source added that the force is to be formed in order to counter “armed militias that intend to impose their control in some areas.” The formation of this Sahwa is likely in response to the escalating violence in Diyala that carry sectarian undertones.
On August 6, Prime Minister Maliki issued an amnesty for members of the ISF who had been absent or deserted from their units. The announcement came in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison attack and is therefore likely intended to allow ISF members who defected the opportunity to return without enduring any punishment. At the same time, it shows an ISF suffering from manpower shortage and points to Maliki’s desire to augment the ISF. Illustrating the depth of this manpower shortage, the amnesty will cover ISF member who defected before 2007. It is also very likely that the amnesty is designed to re-enlist Iraqi Sunni soldiers who may have deserted the military after the Hawija operation. Furthermore, the amnesty is intended to help deal with the issue of ghost soldiers, allowing them to actually show up for the posts they man on paper.
Challenges to the functioning of the ISF will continue given the increased capabilities of AQI and JRTN’s appeal to the Iraqi Sunnis in light of the discontent with Baghdad’s and Maliki’s policies. Although the level of cooperation between AQI and JRTN may have been limited to the Salman Beg area, future cooperation between the two groups will present an even greater challenge to the ISF. Such cooperation may take place in the Salah ad-Din province near the Hamrin Basin area given reports that these groups control terrain there.
The ISF is overstretched and cannot adequately provide security throughout the country. For that reason, there has been increased reliance by the ISF on deploying forces from southern Iraq. On July 23, Member of the parliament’s security and defense committee, Iskandar Witwit, announced that there is a plan to redeploy forces from the 8th and 10th divisions to Diyala and western parts of the country. Both divisions are based in central and southern Iraq. Additional obstacles for the ISF include ineffective intelligence capabilities. The risk from Sahwa forces augmenting the ISF will be that the Sahwas will be even more of a target for AQI. This may serve to render the Sahwas ineffective and constrained.
For Prime Minister Maliki, the resignation and firing of senior commanders is very likely a source of concern. He has based his security plan on the loyalty of those officers. The political challenges against him will increase and this may lead him to enact security measures that will appeal to the Iraqi Shi‘a. Concurrently, those measures will further alienate the Iraqi Sunnis – especially if they are similar to the ongoing Revenge of the Martyrs campaign, which has thus far included indiscriminate arrests of Iraqi Sunnis. Currently, the ISF is attempting to project an image of strength. To that end, the Ministry of Interior announced on August 17 that it rejects arming the population as a security measure and that the state will be the sole provider of security.
As the U.S. Administration considers the possibility of offering security assistance to the Iraqi government, its strategy has to be guided by ensuring that U.S. assistance is exclusively used to target AQI and JRTN and not political opponents of Prime Minister Maliki. Looking ahead, further signs of stress on the ISF will include the additional repositioning of forces from southern Iraq to the northern and western parts of the country. Another indicator will be additional defections and resignation of senior military leaders. Finally, it will be important to watch if the remobilization of Iraqi Shi’a militias is utilized to address the ISF’s challenges. It will be especially risky if the militias are integrated into the ISF or if they operate by the ISF’s side. It is likely that the militias will be rolled into the new Sahwa force in Diyala, or a potential Sahwa force for Baghdad. If that happens, Iraq’s security will be further threatened and the credibility of the ISF will suffer greater damage.
Ahmed Ali is the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War.